Otto Aurich & Lisl Frank

Internet References



Theatrical Performance during the Holocaust


Edited by

Rebecca Rovit and
Alvin Goldfarb


The Johns Hopkins University Press



List of Illustrations xi
Acknowledgments xiii

I Introduction 1



II Identification:

Jewish Theatrical Performance in Nazi Germany  11




Hans Hinkel and German Jewry, 1933-1941   15



An Artistic Mission in Nazi Berlin : The Jewish Kulturbund Theater as Sanctuary 28



"We've Enough Tsoris": Laughter at the Edge of the Abyss 40





Interview with Mascha Benya-Matz 6l



Interview with Kurt Michaelis 67



Correspondence 72



"Protocols," Nazi Propaganda Ministry 76

Kulturbund Dramaturg Dr. Leo Hirsch 81


Letter from Actor Kurt Suessmann to Martin Brandt 84

Letter from Fritz Wisten to Max Ehrlich 87


 II | Containment:

 Performance in Ghettos and in Concentration Camps 91


"It's Burning," 93




Theatrical Activities in the Polish Ghettos during the Years 1939-1942 97



Latvia and Auschwitz 113



Theatrical Activities in the Nazi Concentration Camps 117



Singing in the Face of Death: A Study of Jewish Cabaret and Opera during the Holocaust 125




Cultural Activities in the Vilna Ghetto, March 1942 135


Selections from Surviving the Holocaust:The Kovno Ghetto Diary 140



"Invitation" 143



Drama behind Barbed Wire 145



"The Freest Theater in the Reich": In the German Concentration Camps 150



The Yiddish Theater of Belsen 156



"Voices" 159


Selections from Letters from Westerbork 159



Selections from Year of Fear l6o



Selection from The Scum of the Earth 163



Selection from If This Is a Man 165


Selection from Ravensbrück: The Women's Death Camp 165




III | "The Model Ghetto": Theatrical Performance at Terezin 167


Theresienstadt 169





Creation in a Death Camp 179



Operatic Performances in Terezin: Krasa's Brundibar 190




Theresienstadt Questions 203



Letter from Theresienstadt 208



Freizeitgestaltung in Theresienstadt 209



The Czech Theater in Terezin 231



The Emperor of Atlantis [Der Kaiser von Atlantis] 250
Music by Viktor Ullmann


Memories of Theresienstadt 26$



Epilogue: Lost, Stolen, and Strayed: The Archival Heritage of Modern German-Jewish History 274


Notes 293
Selected Bibliography 327
List of Contributors 333
Credits 337
Index 339


"We've Enough Tsoris"

Laughter at the Edge of the Abyss



november 1937. The daily situation on Berlin 's streets: SA men riot through the city center. Whoever "looks Jewish" is vilified. Store windows are broken, graffiti on apartment house walls announce: "Juda drop dead!" The black and white of the newspapers in their Stürmer display cases declare: "The Jews are our misfortune!" And the official newspaper of the SS, Das Schwarze Korps, wages a vicious campaign against Jewish "germ carriers." The campaign makes clear that "this has nothing to do with the Jews 'themselves'; rather it is the spirit - or evil spirit - that they spread." One can already read between the lines what will later be referred to as the "Final Solution": "Unfortunately, it must be that... there remains a broad field of operation for an active antisemitism, even if not one crooked nose exists in the German Reich . . . We must exterminate the Jewish spirit."

     At the same time in 1937, a master of ceremonies steps in front of an enthusiastic audience at Berlin 's Brüdervereinshaus to speculate in his cabaret solo on the "necessity of our situation." He chats, as one might expect from him  - the friendly, charming conversationalist who has spoken of this and that for decades: for example, about humorists, who "for the most part, are comedians." And he chats about the task of fostering a "Jewish culture out of our own qualities and based on our own possibilities." Finally, the man speaks of Judaism "that neither had nor had known its own artistic creation in the sense that other peoples did."

     In his amusing lecture, which has been previously submitted for approval and censorship to Hans Hinkel, the chief of Jewish cultural affairs in Goebbels's  ministry, the Jewish cabaret artist reflects on a chimera: namely, Jewish cabaret: "We have no experience in Jewish intimate theater or Jewish cabaret  -  a domain that does not exist. We can only try to find our own way by building on that which in the cultural tradition of Jewish cabaret-goers satisfied them. Because a cabaret of only Jewish artists with works by Jews for Jews is by far no Jewish cabaret." A Jewish joke? In his introductory remarks to his Tourists - A Cabaret of Jewish Authors, this evening on Berlin's Kurfürstenstrasse the professional cabarettist, Elow - who now must use the name Erich Lowinsky again - jokes about the joke itself to his Jewish audience: "The best is still this: One person meets another. The other says: 'I know.. ..' But the time for jokes is over. It is our duty to bring you joy and lift your spirits." And after a short pause, he resumes: "One can also take joy seriously." What sounds like a punchline is none.

     Two years earlier in the Monatsblatter des Jüdischen Kulturbundes, Margarete Edelheim posed the fundamental question about mirth with proper seriousness: "Does Jewish cabaret exist?" This journalist continuously demanded in her reviews for the C.V. [ Central Verein der deutschen Juden-Zeitung] that the Kulturbund stage reveal "Jewish content" and present the "lovely art of song in the East European Jewish tradition." What she could glean from her visits to cabaret performances "was not simply Jewish art"; rather, at best, folkloric East European images in the tradition of the Blauen Vogel [The Blue Bird] as staged in Berlin and Frankfurt by Nikolai Eliaschoff and based on the famous Russian cabaret of emigrés.

     The first of these revue-like collages graced the Kulturbund stage in November 1934: Berliner Bilderbogen-Östlicher Bilderbogen [ Berlin Picture Album-Eastern (European) Picture Album]. Berlin 's troupe presented Eliaschoff's cabaret spectacle the way one knew it from the Kurfürstendamm – popular Chansons and seasonal hits from the studio of the unforgettable Hollaender's Tingel-Tangel club and the stylish Nelson-Revue. 1 Annemarie Hase, the robust "Diseuse" of the Wilde Bühne and the Katakombe, presented herself with solid Berlin dialect in tested showstoppers; and although the audience celebrated its darling, the press held back its praise for the prominent interpreter of Tucholsky and Kästner2 ("runaway ballad-singer mouth and bleary-eyed") and likened her performance to "charming fun with Aunt Klara," concluding that "family evenings with Aunt Klara must cease."

     The second half of the program, on the other hand, pleased critics because it "gave rise to the message from the land of our children and our hope. The old 'Blue Bird' rose; a series of medieval images passed; an eternal ghetto came to life; sweet Romantic conjured up a fairy-tale of the "Nowhere King.'" That actually sounds like a new version of the The Blue Bird, known in Berlin during the 1920s as a product of the Russian emigre stage that once formulated its intentions in this way: "Tired of politics and daily life, the Russian went to his cabaret in search of a complete break from the reality of life and a cheerful escape from himself in music, color, and play."

     And yet Eliaschoff's illustrated songs, which included the laughing rabbi, the little Jew with his little fiddle, and little Duderle "whose burdensome little pack almost pressed him to the ground," were enthusiastically received by the fudische Rundschau and perceived as a political event. "An awakening passed through the whole theater, and as if touched by some invisible hand, the people stood, clapped, shouted with joy, laughed, and wept.... Feeling is all. Names and ideas are immaterial. It was blessed to be connected to - no, to be part of a community - a people."

     The hope that the cabaret stage might enable one to gain strength, self-revelation, or orientation soon proved itself misleading, especially since the expectations of audiences were as varied as the programs that the Kulturbund presented between 1934 and 1941. Eliaschoff tried a second time to offer a scenic blend of modern city life and East European Jewish ghetto folklore. This time the description of Berlin reached back to the turn of the century: variety theater. Chansons, Cancan, "Negro songs," and cliched rhymed couplets about domestics.3 There were songs about a wood auction in Grunewald and the beauty of May in Schöneberg before the old rabbi laughed again and the beautiful "Mädele" [young girl] turned to the Hassidic ways; still, at times, the critics indulgently noted something wrong with the Yiddish and they doubted whether the actors "had ever seen real Hassidim before." This time, too, the reviewers in the Jewish newspapers regretted ("if we had only these worries!") that the audience "gratefully used" the nostalgic Berlin happiness created by Eliaschoff "to escape from present times."

     However, Jewish cabaret was no longer mentioned, not even when Eliaschoff staged a "new East European and Palestine collage" in Berlin 's Bach-Saal in December 1935. Indeed, Arthur Eloesser pointed out in the Jüdische Rundschau that in spite of the professionalism and the "improvised levity" of the evening, and "despite the Oriental hand-wringing," the "amateurs prove more powerful when they stamp on the territory of Eretz Israel which they too had prepared." Still, Eloesser praised the Jewish humor, whose "fool's bells ring above the solemnity of suffering and seem to say to us: Even when we have nothing else, at least we still have ourselves."

     Yet there remained an unease with what should be presented on the Kulturbund's cabaret stage which, after all, should offer something to the most people possible. "What does cabaret mean for us in our situation?" the Jüdische Rundschau asked itself two years later in regard to the expected premiere of Tourists. The answer may sound "rather primitive" to readers: "According to us, material for Jewish cabaret is everything that has to do with Jewish content, can be understood by Jews in Germany, and can - and may be - encapsulated in small form." As to how this could be accomplished, the same newspaper suggested: "One paints colored placards and sings folk songs in unison beneath them." Yet in the next sentence the writer cast doubt on these words, "How questionable that all is!"

     In this way, Elow tried to incorporate relevant and timely themes in his Tourists program, all the while remaining true to his motto, "the cabaret is always the fool of its time." The one-time managing editor of the once-famous Berliner comic stage, the Namenlosen [Nameless] (which Erich Kästner made into a literary monument in Fabian), tried to delete what the Jewish press had criticized from the Kulturbund's cabaret beginnings as "reminiscences of an earlier, long gone time, ... a mishmash of isolated Herrnfeld Theater4 and stale Kabarett der Komiker," and finally as a "salad of very old Berlin N and Berlin W Remains" with the "ugly smack ofunequivocalness and jabber."5

     In Tourists, the opening address and the songs focused on "Goodbye 1937" and emigration, of a letter from the brother in Palestine , and a ship that will arrive. The program was mindful of a  recommendation from the Gemeindeblatt der Jüdischen Reformgemeinde zu Berlin that cabaret "should not only stimulate the laugh muscles, especially in our situation," rather it should "take issue in artistic form with daily questions, daily concerns, and daily upsets, while lifting us beyond them."

     And yet the reviewer had basic doubts. Tourists was in the well-established tradition of the comic stage (the program noted, "costumes: our own; scenery:  none; beards: our property"). But while the production literarily tingled in front of an "audience laden with worry," according to the Jüdische Rundschau, it neglected to "criticize the weaknesses of Jewish life - which a cabaret is supposed to do" - in spite of "honest attempts and well-earned success." On the other hand, the introductory address "should have been less sharp" than it turned out to be. And although "the whole event maintained high standards and satisfied intellectual and artistic demands - combined with a natural need for entertainment throughout," there "are (and always were) experiences that are too serious to be expressed by a Chanson."

     Jewish cabaret? Even Margarete Edelheim concluded, "we cannot easily have Jewish cabaret. We will always perceive Hassidic dances, East European Jewish folk songs, the song of the Rothschilds, the description of any New York ghetto scene, or a folk song from the Emek (East European region] as small slices of the reality which together present the diversity of Jewish life in the Diaspora and in Palestine. . . . Even so, however, we should not dispense with Jewishness in cabaret." What exactly that was, though, remained unclear: "Only the best, only true art and culture may be presented to Jews in the various Kulturbund theaters. What may not be shown are the rejected remains of an illusory culture of the metropolis - something we've been seeing in the cabarets of the last decades."

     This required the "squaring of the circle": Laugh, but not too much; offer measured fun with profundity that distracts the audience. The discussion centered on a seemingly academic question, namely, whether there actually could exist what really was not supposed to exist. Obviously, this discussion drew its Contemporary relevance from the tension between the Kulturbund's aims to
"offer Jews relaxation and pleasure" and the increasing seriousness of the daily situation in which this task was to be fulfilled. The question of how Jewish the cabaret had to be  -  if even such a thing existed  -  pointed to the absurdity of the situation in which the question was seriously discussed. In practice, there was something much more fundamental to consider: the ambivalence of human beings' basic needs in no-win situations. The joke as a drug; satire and irony as harbingers of hope; the punchline as a weapon of resistance; fun as distraction; and laughter to document the will to survive  -  right there in places where laughter sticks in ones throat. This all marks an unsolvable problem with which those people who faced death on the ramp ofAuschwitz had to deal.

      The cabaret artists themselves wrestled with the question differently back then - in fact, more practically. Prominent artists still popular among audiences - blacklisted overnight - without a possibility to perform, grabbed any opportunity they could to appear onstage  -  regardless of the conditions. Erich Lowinsky's newly opened Kunstlerspiele Uhlandeck in Berlin had just been closed. He received a "pink slip" just like his colleagues had: expulsion from the Reich Chamber for Writers, expulsion from the Reich Theater Chamber, expulsion from the Speciality Alliance ofVariete, Theater, and Circus Directors.

     The application for readmission was rejected: "According to the will of the Führer  and Reichs-Chancellor, only suitable and responsible fellow country-men may administer German culture as indicated in paragraph 10 of the first ordinance for implementing the laws of the Reichskulturkammer. In light of the lofty relevance that spiritual and culture-creating work has on the life and the development of the German people, only those persons are qualified  - without a doubt - to execute such a task in Germany who belong to the German race not only as citizens of the state, but also through their deep connection in manner and in blood ... Because you are not an Aryan...."

     The existence of the Jüdischer Kulturbund would come to Erich Lowinsky's attention in a letter from the president of the Reich Union for German Artistry. The opportunity to appear before an audience in spite of the ban was for many artists a way out during a time without prospects. So they played on from 1934 in Berlin , in Frankfurt, Stuttgart , Cologne , Hamburg , and other places at first. In the beginning they played in special cabaret locales for Jewish artists like in Berlin 's Cafe Leon on the Kurfurstendamm, Btihne und Bretti on the Joachimsthaler Straße, or in Brettl, im Zentrum, in the King of Portugal Hotel, which  adorned its advertising sign with two Stars of David. Many prominent cabaretists performed there: the emcees Willy Prager, Willy Hagen, Alfons Fink, and Fritz Benscher; the "Diseuses" Dora Gerson, Annemarie Hase, Gertrud Kohlmann, and Rosa Valetti; those stars of recitation - Ludwig Hardt, Dela Lipinskaya, Karl Ettlinger, and Joseph Plaut; the comedians Max Ehrlich and Otto Wallburg; the music-hall impresario Willy Rosen; and the fife player Guido Gialdini. The Jewish newspapers announced guest programs by the prominent from the entertainment world: droll skits with Felix Bressart; grotesque dance with Valeska Gert; concerts with the "film and record star" Joseph Schmidt.

       At various places, Jewish cabarets were established where well-known artists participated and where unknowns showed off their talent: the Kunterbunte Würfel [Topsy-turvy Cube] in Frankfurt; Leo Raphaeli's Rosarote Brille [Rose-Colored Glasses] in Hamburg ; Fred Wald's Bunter Karren [Colorful Wheelbarrow] in Leipzig . Even in remote Beuthen, an ensemble established itself in 1934 under the directorship of Willi Feuereisen. Committed to the Muse of Cabaret, the troupe performed cheerful revues year after year, creating the cozy atmosphere of club meetings in rhymed images.

     At the same time, the actors, singers, and dancers of Berlin 's Kulturbund stage created cabaret shows that they toured to the provinces. Cläre Arnstein, Jenny Bernstein, Alfred Berliner, Steffi Rosenbaum, and Fritz Tachauer soon became the stars playing the highlights of touring revues named the Kunterbunt [Topsy-turvy], Quer durch Ernst und Scherz [Traversing Seriousness and Jest], or simply Heiterer Abend [Cheerful Evening], promising a "varied blend of cabaretic delicacies" until 1941. The repertory consisted of traditional, old numbers from the 1920s: songs by Tucholsky, Hollaender, Spoliansky, grotesque lyrical songs from Morgenstern to Ringelnatz; sketches by Molnar and Salten; numbers from operettas; and finally, original compositions with thought-provoking and cheerful undertones.

     They performed afternoon and evening variety shows, at cabarets, and even for social evenings of the Jtidischer Kulturbund. For example, in April 1938, Camilla  Spira and Max Ehrlich presented skits in between a dance competition and a raffle whose first prize was a trip to Palestine and a crossing to the United States .

     Actors had to rely on their ability for improvisation  -  not only onstage, for a stage was not always available. Egon Jacobsohn reported in the Jüdische Allgemeine Zeitung (November 1934) on a variety show in Stettin that he performed with Camilla Spira, Erna Klein, Elsa Koch, and Wilhelm Guttmann. Just hours before the event began, they discovered that the Kulturbund hall was unavailable. And so they played in the synagogue although there was not even a curtain for the Torah. Jacobsohn reported how one was "gripped by an odd excitement upon entering the room and finding oneself before the Torah shrine. In the room  -  silence." Then the program began with skits and song. Spira recited cheerful verse and the audience - clad in hats and coats - was not stingy with applause. They "laughed, laughed a lot," concluded the report from Stettin as it marked "drowning applause... six hundred pairs of hands clap without pause."

     The programs were strictly monitored. Gestapo reports noted the sequence of musical numbers, reactions of the audience, and whether or not there existed a "reason to object to the lectures." This was not usually the case; however, the texts were subject to strict censorship and had to be submitted to Hinkel's office for appraisal prior to performances. And just about anything that belonged to a cabaret critical of its times fell victim to Hinkel's red marker. The censor would find and strike allusions to the times, insubordination in tone and gesture, "between the lines," hidden meanings and messages within words, and double-entendres. Forbidden were parodying lines that referred to Heine's "Lorelei" or Goethe's "Erlkönig"; jests about baptism; jokes about ancestry, race, and the power of holy water; as well as allusions to what "kind of a grandmother one has." Any Chansons submitted by Dela Lipinskaja had no chance for acceptance - her "Lügenlieder," for example ("although they already are lying like troopers, accept my verse graciously")6 or the poem by Bry about two trees in the forest, where some things are puffed up "in pride," such as "a large family tree which is essentially of the same wood as a small tree trunk."7 Further, permission was denied those texts that dealt comically with the situation of the Jews - an example of which was written by Willy Prager - "What good is it if one is sad and no longer gay, because we're bankrupt anyway!"8

     The censor was especially hard on Ludwig Hardt, banning his recitations temporarily because his "manner of speaking ridicules Germany and our goals  in the coarsest manner" - so read a Gestapo report to Hinkel. Also scrapped often from Hamburg 's calendar of events were Leo Raphaeli's revues for his cabaret ensemble. Known before the First World War as Willy Hagen of the Nelson-Stage, Raphael! was now forbidden in his sketches to mention this long-faded time of glory. Nor did Willy Prager - once Raphaeli's cabaret colleague - receive permission for such reminiscences. Often, just the name of an unpopular or ail-too popular author was enough to secure a ban from Hinkel. Consequently, Hedi Haas passed off as her own texts poems by Kästner and by foreigners, including the lascivious-erotic couplet "Der gute alte Ton" ["The Good Old Tone"], which was really "Die Dame von der alten Schule" - originally written in the 1920s by Hans Hannes for a Nelson revue. Haas, a Jew, would never have been authorized to perform Hannes's texts: Hannes alias Hans Heinz Zerlett had become a well-known writer and director of films that partly emphasized antisemitic themes.

     At the onset of World War II, the Kulturbund's cabaret interpreters saw what a precarious situation they were in professionally; everything that was not expressly permitted was forbidden. In January 1940, the Reichsministerium für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda announced in a protocol note for Jewish masters of ceremonies what Goebbels would soon order for Aryan cabaret artists: a ban on all onstage addresses made by cabaret emcees. An instruction to the Jüdischer Kulturbund stated that "Before submitting requests in the area of cabaret, it is essential to prevent such sketches as those by Prager and Tachauer, in which . . . one cannot distinguish whether they are tasteless or brazen. All lectures, texts like Prager, Willi [sic] Rosen, Tachauer, and others will no longer be authorized."9

     Censorship threatened the cabaret artists from the other side as well. The Kulturbund - more than once the target of its own cabaret's sport - did not even submit those self-mocking texts to the censor for appraisal. "Gute Verbindungen" ["Good Connections"] was one of the texts that made fun of patronage at the Kulturbund:

Have you heard? Oh? Do you already know?

Whosiwhatsit, the son of, you know, what's his name?

The singer has no theater engagement anymore. What?

What's he doing now? Well, you know,

The boy is truly a genius.

What? He should join the Kulturbund?

Oh, Thanks! With Eizes I'm blessed

Do put yourself in his shoes

There one hears: Nebbich ! 10

      Kurt Singer, who saw these lines first, noted in the margin on 8 September 1937,
"Ill-spirited trash. Don't pass on!" 11

      In an article from 1935 entitled "A Jewish Theater in Berlin ?" Hans Hinkel announced: "We have limited the Jews who have stayed in Germany to their own cultural circles and have with this condition created a German politics of culture." The NS-Reich's cultural representative continued his essay with pride, " 'Jews work for Jews!' - With this motto I permitted the Jewish cultural organization to exist in the summer of 1933 and since then continue to ensure that this Jewish cultural movement - now extending across the Reich - fulfills its goals in accordance with our established guiding principles." In August of the same year, Kurt Tucholsky discouragingly commented on this process from faraway Hindas in a letter to his  Swiss friend, Hedwig Müller: "Dear Nuuna . . . One ordered the German Jews to found ghetto-theater and cultural organizations and they do so. I can hear the know-it-alls with glasses and beards saying, 'And now we want to show them how we have the better theater - and recently, the aunt of a Stormtrooper was in our midst and she said it too: This is better than our own state-theater,' and with that, they all are satisfied. One should not disturb them." In another part of the letter, he summed it up: "The Kulturbund is really an opportunity to say nebbich."

     One could have seen through the alibi nature of such a "cultural movement," along with Kurt Tucholsky (whose effective, popular texts belonged to the cabaret repertory for some time), but many of the actors and cabaret stars saw no alternative for themselves. At the mercy of the German language for better or for worse, they apparently found it more difficult te emigrate than other artists - painters or musicians, for example. Add to that, especially for cabaret artists, an astonishing naivete and blindness concerning the political currents of those years: One did not take especially seriously the brown masses that marched through the streets at the beginning of the 1930s.

     This is clear enough in a mini dialogue between professional cabaret stars of the times, Kurt Robitschek, who directed KadeKo, and the comic Kurt Lilien. When Robitschek spoke of the need to gradually look for exile, Lilien naively rejoined, "What do you mean by that?" And to the next question whether he had not read Mem Kampf, 12 Lilien answered, "I don't read bad books." The short exchange - almost a music-hall skit - does have its bitter point: Robitschek made it to America in time, whereas Lilien died in Auschwitz , having been discovered by the Germans in his Dutch exile.

     Rosa Valetti was the grand old Dame of Berlin's theater - the actress with the unmistakable face of a bull who played the role of cabaret director in the film, The Blue Angel. She was also known as the surly and sharp-voiced "Diseuse" who performed her songs and sketches in her own cabarets, the Rakete, Größenwahn, Rampe, and Larifari. Just before she left Germany in 1934, Valetti appeared on

the Kulturbund stage in such Boulevard comedies as Weekend and Sturm im Wasser. 13 Her farewell to her audience, reported the Gemeindeblatt, took place amid "lively ovations," during a variety show, replete with Chansons, skits, and poems by Kästner and Kaleko.14

     Other actors waited, hesitating to emigrate. In fact, homesickness urged some of the refugees to return to the German Reich from the safe havens to which they had fled. Opportunities to appear onstage at the Jüdischer Kulturbund, for example, played a significant role in luring actors home. Willy Rosen, for instance, had long since emigrated to Holland and become very successful as a touring artist; he kept returning to Berlin until 1936 to appear in the Kulturbund cabaret. In May 1935, he recorded four lively Rosen titles with S. Petruschka 's "Sid Kay's Fellows" for Jewish lukraphon labels. Among the recordings "that will give you pleasure"  -  so read the company's advertising brochures  -  were the tango "I Lost My Heart in Hawaii" and the waltz-like German carnival song "Gasthof zur goldenen Schnecke" ["Tavern of the Golden Snail"], "in which a piano stands in the corner."

     At about the same time (1935), Dora Gerson also returned to Berlin to make a record. She fled to Holland in August 1932, after having been harassed as a Jew onstage at the Katakombe. She voiced her criticism at the microphone more forcibly than her male cabaret colleague. In addition to Endrikat's sailor ballad, "Backbord und Steuerbord," she sang Curt Bry's Chanson, "Die Welt ist klein geworden" ["The World Has Become Small"]:

 We are zooming over there on 1000 horsepower

and cannot help doing so

We sit inside the Tower of Babel

and can only hate ourselves for it.

We've created electric light,

and yet cannot see ourselves.

We've invented Esperanto

and will never understand ourselves.

The world has become vast, so horribly vast.

And all our hopes are dreams.

You became clever

and have become ready

to be but chaff on this earth.15

      In November 1936, Gerson returned to Germany again to partake in a cabaret evening of the Jüdischer Kulturbund. She sang Mehring, Bry, Eliaschoff, and recited "Lottchens Beichte" ["Confessions"] by Tucholsky. Then she returned to Amsterdam , where she resumed her career in performing Nelson-revues at emigré  cabarets. Five years later she died at Auschwitz , an early victim of the pogrom for which her ex-husband, Veit Harlan, had helped pave the way with his film Jud Süß.

Max Ehrlich also came to Berlin from Holland in the fall of 1935 to inaugurate his cabaret. Two years later he traveled to the United States, performed his best numbers for a theater agent, and, disappointed (the American was unimpressed), boarded the next ship for Hitler's Germany to resume his Kulturbund career.

     Even Valeska Gert apparently could not live without her Berlin public. After a London performance in 1934, the temperamental grotesque dancer with a capacity for scandal, retracted her criticism to the British press on the situation of Jews in Germany . She suggested "misunderstandings," distanced herself from the interview, and hoped that "no objections will be made to my next appearance and my return." She would be "totally unhappy if I could not return to Germany ," she wrote the Kulturbund from London . "The artist yearns to come home," Singer informed Hinkel.

      Camilla Spira was much in demand for years as an actress and cabaret artiste. She won great acclaim as the blond innkeeper of the Rössl in the popular pro-duction by Charell. And on the occasion of the premiere of her film, Morgenrot, she received a laurel wreath, "To the Personification of the German Woman  - UFA "  -  in the presence of those in power. Goring, Goebbels, and company. Nonetheless, like many of her colleagues, Spira saw herself - a half-Jew - become the victim  overnight of a complete ban on all professional appearances. In September 1934,  she made her cabaret debut at the Kulturbund in a program called Freuden der Sommerreise [Joys of the Summer Journey], dedicated to "those who stayed at home and those who have returned." The Jüdische Gemeindeblatt noted about Spira's performance: "light at heart and of hair... light in voice and mood  -  most effective, of course, was the song which could have been written about her: 'Mein Liebling ist so blond.' "

     Willy Prager hosted the evening; Prager, an old master of the cabaret, had already enthralled listeners during Imperial Germany in Rudolf Nelson's Chat Noir. Even though "the audience laughed so that the rows of benches shook," the C.V.-Zeitung was concerned that the cabaret stars lacked the deep solemnity appropriate for the new situation: "Revealed here is the actual, even tragic difficulty of people who lack the profound Jewish security." The same might be said of the audience "that is obviously inspired by the dusty old jokes and art forms of a lost world." The reason for such harsh criticism was the fact that the program included "not only very old jokes, but some tasteless ones about Tel Aviv."     Also, the "only thing Jewish" about a scene entitled "Simchat Torah at home": the "two silver candlesticks and the hand movements of Nelly Hirth." Moreover, a picture was drawn of "an unpleasant family, using very un-Jewish jokes, whose age cannot even be written with two-figure numbers."

     Critic Margarete Edelheim called cabaret sketches like "Karriere" ["Career"] and "Ein Besuch im Kulturbund" ["A Visit to the Kulturbund"] an "embarrassing mistake"; it was incomprehensible "how even one Jewish hand could applaud." No indeed, it was concluded: Such portrayals were "neither Jewish nor German  -  not even culture or art."

     Even those who applauded Willy Rosen, now an internationally renowned entertainer of the Kabarett der Komiker, at the Kulturbund's first cabaret evening were criticized. Neither were Rosen's talented new hits updated, nor did he modify his standard audience address, "Text and music from me!" In fact the numbers represented yesterday, because they "could have been sung in 1911 as well as in 1932 - but in 1934? The audience, however, rejoiced and was happy."

     The C.V.-Zeitungwas not alone in reprimanding its audience or in challenging the Kulturbund repeatedly to turn from the "path that led into a thicket, not a free atmosphere." Indeed, the Kulturbund must "not react to the audience: It must educate it." The Jüdische Liberate Zeitung also responded vehe
mently against the aims and tastes of Willy Rosen's October 1934 performance. The cabaret star's finale especially "drew the audience into a 'strudel' of his powerful Berlin expressions."

     The newspaper commented further on the presentation's lively mood. "In all understanding for the social needs of the actors, it must be said that the Kulturbund also has to fulfill tasks it established with the choice of its name."
     What could be meant by this could also be read in The C. V.-Zeitung: The Kulturbund must not be satisfied with "this kind of intimate theater; in spite of the great laughter-filled success" it must create "true cabaret evenings, so that one may at least sense that one is in a league of 'culture,' and not in one of the former theaters on the Kurfürstendamm."

Such objections all but disappeared when the much-criticized Kurfürstendamm-cabaret prominence actually did move into the Kommandantenstrafie with Max Ehrlich as its director. In October 1935, Ehrlich - once the star of the world-renowned KadeKo  -  termed his own institution at Cafe Leon on the Kurfürstendamm, the "cabaret theater of the Jüdischer Kulturbund e.V." The Jüdische Allgemeine Zeitung did comment on the occasion of the premiere:

"Jewish cabaret - today: two words which do not connect well. Cabaret gains its true legitimization from reality. Jewish reality is sorrow, need, concern  - appearances that in the cabaret's colored footlights would hardly make a good impression." In the end, however, the reviewer was also convinced by the concept Ehrlich had described in his opening address (grabbing the bull by the horns, so to speak). Among the many congratulations he had received since the cabaret's  debut, one sentence was especially noteworthy. Someone had written him: "Be really funny. We've enough tsoris at home." This, said director Ehrlich, should be the motto of his cabaret.

His success proved him right. The press championed his "choral and creative art" evident both "scenically and musically in the polished, successful performance." The press also legitimized the needs of the enthusiastic audience "to allow themselves to be transported for a few hours from the darkened existence into the illusion of unburdened brightness." And indeed, the experienced professional, Max Ehrlich - well-versed in staging techniques - had arranged his show with a rapid succession of only those numbers whose success had been proven. And so with confident grandeur, the clever director offered his audience - so keen on distraction - a program unlike ones by his predecessors: a bouquet of joyous cabaret fun. "Mr. Honest will last the longest!"16 called the Jüdische Allgemeine Zeitung to the man who for three years would give the light muse a lasting home during hard times. 

His formula for cabaret was as simple as his tested entrance numbers and their capable scenic preparations. In front of [Heinz] Condell's fairly opulent, painted backdrops, Ehrlich always introduced scenes and sketches with the standard flourish "Just take a look at this!" The numbers ranged from "Gespielte Witze" to a new version of Wilhelm Bendow's skit, "Aufder Rennbahn" ["On the Racetrack"], to happy Chansons that reminisced about the good old days. And Ehrlich moderated brilliantly as a mimic in his "Parade" number, a parody of prominent artists, memorializing such recording stars as Richard Tauber, Marlene Dietrich, Al Jolson, and Fjodor Schaliapin.

     Ehrlich brought his experienced cabaret colleague, Willy Rosen, back to Berlin for the second program.  He staged one musical revue after another with Rosen on the Kulturbund cabaret stage: Kunterbunt [Topsy-turvy, December 1935]; Herr Direktor - bitte Vorschufi! [Advance Payment, Please, Mr. Director!, February 1936]; Bitte Einsteigen! [All Aboard!, March 1937]; Gemischtes Kompott [Fruit Cocktail, October 1938]. Rosen wrote the new musical numbers. Ehrlich arranged them scenically, added comic skits, and sketched in jokes; drawing on the rich repertory of cabaret, he dusted off old numbers that still made people laugh. Director Ehrlich himself embodied his own best stage actor – character actor, comedian, and emcee all in one person. He also proved capable of forming a talented cabaret ensemble. Ehrlich and Rosen were an unbeatable team that promised success. Willy Rosen had an unfailing recipe for their success: "One takes a thin comedian and a fat comic; one adds a few pounds of sex appeal; one adds a few comprehensible melodies which the audience can sing after the show; one adds a few old jokes from which you 'cut off the beards'; one takes a lot of new jokes, some ornaments; red, green, and blue light. Blend all of the ingredients well and the revue is done!" A series of successes emerged at the Jüdische Kulturbund. The Cafe Leon soon became too small for the throng of cabaret-goers; and the cabaret had to move to a larger hall.

     Willy Rosen, a stage interpreter in Berlin until the fall of 1936, delivered his catchy melodies to Ehrlich's cabaret up until that time and later from Holland . The Israelitisches Familienblatt praised his Chansons in April 1937 as ones "which were immediately sung by the entire audience" from "Mandoline, kleine Mandoline," "Wenn du denkst, ich liebe dich" ["If You Think I Love You"], "Wolln wir heute abend mal ins Kino gehn" ["Shall We Go to the Movies Tonight"], to the "Postkutsche" ["The Stage-Coach"] number where Ehrlich (October 1938), dressed in nineteenth-century postillion, sang: "Slowly, slowly, always goodnaturedly, we're not in a hurry and we've plenty of time."17 He sang it again in December after the notorious pogroms of Kristallnacht had raged. Five years later this song by the Ehrlich-Rosen team took on a frightening reality - before the camp wardens on the concentration camp stage of Westerbork.

     Max Ehrlich, or the "Tausendsassa" ["devil of a fellow" - the affectionate name the press gave him], was inexhaustible. When a new program went well, he sought and found new tasks. He directed for the Kulturbund stage, acted in Shakespeare, Courteline, and Molnar, and hosted film premieres. And he was at home in "Fruit Cocktail." He brought two unmistakable boulevard hits to his cabaret stage: Warum lugst du, Cherie? [Why Are You Lying, Darling? - Hans Lengsfelder/Siegfried Tisch] and Essig und 01 [Vinegar and Oil - Siegfried Geyer/Paul Frank]. He had tested his effectiveness in front of audiences with Vinegar and Oil during the time of Max Reinhardt. In the "modern fairy-tale," Max Ehrlich played a fruit vendor who decides not to hang himself because he sells a girl the rope he had planned to put around his neck.

     A metaphor? The allusions to the time in which Ehrlich learned to create good spirits are vague. Even the travel-revue, All Aboard! (March 1937) for which the director decorated both the auditorium and the stage as a train station, although signaling a major farewell, did not overstate the parallels to the times. Arthur Eloesser commented in the Jüdische Rundschau: "We know that we'll have a good ride with Max Ehrlich. Among 23 stations there are surely several which aren't worth a stop; but with this conductor, derailments into platitudes are not to be feared. The journey with Ehrlich does not go far; it's a trip to familiar places like Leipzig , Finsterwalde, and especially Kalau:18 Instead, the trip succeeds for a few hours in harmoniously relieving our cares."

     When Ehrlich finally boarded the train for Amsterdam in the spring of 1939, leaving Berlin for good, the Jewish press devoted moving addresses to him. Julius Bab spoke of the "master of the art of masking," of his cabaret "works of art," and of the stage actor who "placed in the service of creative imagination his ability to develop characters."19 Ehrlich's farewell show, the Revue der Revuen, had many repeat performances. The farewell revue of the star – already announced by the press as Max Israel Ehrlich  - with the "seventeen most beautiful scenes from eight revues" played on 2 April for the very last time. The cabaret theater died on that day.

     It would be revived not long after in the concentration camp, Westerbork - that "waiting hall of death." More than one hundred thousand Jews were rounded up there, among them the prominent cabarettists of Berlin and Vienna . These stars had fled Hitler after 1933 and gone to neighboring Holland: the masters of ceremonies Josef Baar and Franz Engel; the comedians Otto Wallburg and Hermann Feiner; the cabaret stars Chaja Goldstein and Alice Dorell; dancers and musicians like Otto Aurich and Erich Ziegler and the one-time stars of the legendary Nelson-revues Kurt Gerron and Camilla Spira. And finally, Ehrlich and Rosen.

     The camp commandant at Westerbork, SS-Obersturmführer Gemmeker, was a friend of the light muse known as cabaret. He had a stage erected in the registration barracks, a building from where those consecrated to death were sent to Auschwitz and Sobibor. The stage boards stemmed from a demolished synagogue from a town in the nearby county. Instruments were carted in; expensive curtain material was requested from Amsterdam ; and costumes were "put in safekeeping" in exclusive fashion houses.

     The revues that Max Ehrlich and Willy Rosen brought to their " Camp Westerbork stage" from 1943 on, Humor und Melody, Bravo! Da Capo!, or Total Verrückt ! [ Totally Crazy! ], gave the cheerless camp on the heath near the German-Dutch border the reputation of being the "stronghold of European cabaret." The programs contained songs from operettas, popular hits, moody skits and silly sketches, ballet numbers, and jokes. A reunion took place with familiar material that was no longer fresh even on Berlin 's cabaret stage or Rosen's Dutch boards. And in the first row surrounded by his team of guards sat the commandant in a large armchair. "The people laughed and clapped. It was as if we were in Berlin on the Kurfürstendamm," remembers Camilla Spira, who at Westerbork sang her successful songs from the Weifien Rofil [White Horse Inn]. "We were suddenly somewhere else. One can hardly imagine that. The people down in the audience forgot everything during those two hours."

      They always performed when the transports headed for the extermination
camps - cabaret as a mood drug to quiet the candidates for death. "My God," wrote Etty Hillesum in her diary: "The room was full to a bursting point and one laughed tears, yes tears!" Philip Mechanicus noted shortly before his deportation: "We're all sitting here up to our necks in filth, but in spite of that, one chirrups. Psychological riddle. Operetta music at the opened grave . . . Amid jokes, they blow to death."20

     Whoever appeared on Ehrlich's concentration camp stage saw a chance for survival. Willy Rosen, according to fellow inmates, for example, auditioned his songs for the SS-commandant: "He sang for his life, sang his lungs out of his chest." In fact, he even wrote new songs for the camp's stage: "If one is unlucky, then life has no meaning; if one is unlucky, then one slips and falls down. That's why I beg you, Fortune, to be true to me."21

     Luck failed to appear. In the beginning of August 1944, it was time. Commandant Gemmeker dissolved the camp and sent his cabarettists on a transport; the "special trains" rolled by Theresienstadt to Auschwitz . Scarcely one of those who saw to the mood and good spirits of Westerbork escaped the gas chamber. Rosen and Ehrlich died in October 1944. A few lines written by Willy Rosen at his brief stop in Theresienstadt have been passed down:

There's always someone somewhere whom one laughs about.

There's always someone somewhere who makes the jokes.

Someone is intended to play the fool.

It lasts one's whole life and begins in school.

Someone must wander through life - the eternal clown.

Ach, people like to laugh, especially at the cost of another.

There's always someone somewhere whom one laughs about.

There's always someone somewhere who will play the POJAZ. 22




Note: Kühn's references are to his unpublished TV-interviews with Camilla  Spira and to documents from the Fritz-Wisten and Elow archive collections of the Akademie der Künste , Berlin .

Notes compiled by translator. Tsoris is Yiddish for "troubles, pain, concerns."


 1 Friedrich Hollaender and Rudolf Nelson were part of the Berlin cabaret tradition. The name of Hollaender's cabaret, Tingel-Tangel, means "variety theater." Kiihn produced an exhibition for the Akademie der Künste, Berlin, in October 1997, "Bei uns um die Gedächtniskirche rum . . . Berlin Cabaret, Friedrich Hollaender und das Kabarett der Zwanziger Jahre."


 2 Kurt Tucholsky and Erich Kästner were well-known German satirists and writers. Tucholsky, a Jew, emigrated immediately after Hitler's takeover. Kästner's work was immediately blacklisted by the Nazi government.


 3 The author's reference here distinguishes between simple rhymes and the more sophisticated verse geared for cabaretgoers of a higher economic class.


 4 The Herrnfeld Theater (named after two brothers) was the first Berlin theater to offer comic skits in Yiddish during the late 1920s. The touring companies from Vilnius and the Habima Theater performed at this theater during the 1920s. The Kulturbund theater eventually moved into the Herrnfeld Theater on Kommandantentraße.


 5 The Berlin "N" and "W" refer to different districts of the city. Kühn uses them to suggest different  populations and different kinds of humor. Residents of the city's north, for example, were typically working-class and preferred coarse humor incorporating social-criticism to the high-brow fare that appealed to intellectuals of  West Berlin during the 1920s.


 6"Obwohl sich schon die Balken biegen, nehmt meine Verse gnädig hin."


 7 The German play on words by Curt Bry refers to family trees and ancestry: "im Stolze manch grosser Stammbaum... aus gleichem Holze wie ein kleiner Baumstamm."


 8"Was nutzt, wenn man traurig ist und nicht mehr froh, denn pleite sind mer sowieso!"


 9 See "Protocol" from 5 January 1940 in  Part I, documents.


10 The Yiddish words Eizes and Nebbich, respectively, mean "good advice" and "so what." The German original text is as follows:

Haben Sie gehört? Ja? Wissen Sie schon?
Der Dings, der, na von dem Dings der Sohn,
Der Sänger hat kein Engagement mehr. Wie?
Was er nun macht? Ja, wissen Sie,
Der Junge ist direkt ein Genie.
Was? Er soll zum Kulturbund gehn?
Sie, danke! Mit Eizes bin ich versehn.
Versetzen Sie sich doch in seine Lage.
Da hört man: Nebbich!


11 Gemauschel is a German expression that Singer used to refer to the text. The word comes from an expression used in medieval Germany to refer to how Jews spoke, mumbling over their words.


12 This was Hitler's manifesto.


13  These plays are by Noel Coward and Bruno Frank.


14  Mascha Kaleko was a successful East European lyric poet living in Berlin during this time.


15  The German text is as follows:

Wir sausen mit tausend PS dahin,

Wir können es nicht mehr lassen.

Wir sitzen im Turm vom Babel drin

Und können uns nur noch hassen.

Wir haben das Licht elektrisch gemacht

Und können uns trotzdem nicht sehen.

Wir haben ein Esperanto erdacht

Und werden uns niemals verstehen.

Die Welt ist weit geworden

So furchtbar weit geworden

Und alle Hoffnungen sind Träumerein.

Du bist gescheit geworden und bist bereit geworden

Auf dieser Welt nur Spreu zu sein ...


16  Ehrlich is the German word for "honest"; the newspaper reviewer puns using a German proverb on honesty.


17  "Immer langsam, immer langsam, immer mit Gemütlichkeit

     es ist noch nicht soweit, wir haben noch lange Zeit...."


18  "Kalau" is a make-believe place which in this context refers to a stale joke that makes you groan, "an old chestnut," or "Kalauer."


19  Julius Bab was a writer and drama critic who became the Kulturbund's first dramaturg. He eventually emigrated to the United States .


20 The reference in German uses a hunting term, "zum Halili blasen," which is when hunters blow their horns to signal that an animal is dead.


21  "Wenn man kein Glück hat,

dann hat das Leben keinen Sinn;

wenn man kein Glück hat,

dann rutscht man aus und fällt man hin

drum bitt ich dich, Fortuna, bleib mir treu...."


22  Pojaz is the sad clown. The German text reads as follows:


Überall gibt's immer einen, über den man lacht,
Überall gibt's immer einen, der die Witze macht.
Einer ist dazu bestimmt, den Narren abzugeben,
Das fängt in der Schule an, und bleibt das ganze Leben.
Einer muß als ewiger Clown durch das Dasein wandern,
Ach, die Menschen lachen gern - auf Kosten eines andern:

Überall gibt's immer einen, über den man lacht,
Überall gibt's immer einen, der für euch - den Pojaz macht.



Otto & Lisl at Kamp Westerbork


Otto & Lisl Internet References


Otto & Lisl CD Releases


Totentanz Reviews


Return to Holocaust Page


Return to Aufrichtigs Home Page


Max Ehrlich Association